Retired Senior Master Sgt. Oscar Rodriguez was forcibly ejected from a colleague’s retirement ceremony in April for using an older, more religious version of a speech that contained the word “God.” Rodriguez feels that his first Amendment rights were trampled upon and is now threatening the United States Air Force with a lawsuit if he does not receive an official apology. He is being supported by First Liberty, a group dedicated to protecting religious freedom for all citizens, has agreed to represent Rodriguez for no cost.
Rodriguez was invited to speak at the April 3 ceremony for Master Sergeant Charles Roberson from the 749th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. Robertson had heard Rodriguez perform powerful renditions of the speech for other retiring officers and asked Rodriguez to speak at his ceremony.
Rodriguez is arguing that preventing him from completing the speech was a violation of his First Amendment rights and is a clear example of the government discriminating against him for his religious beliefs. In 2005 the Pentagon changed the traditional flag folding speech to remove any mention of god or religious deities. Any language referencing the divine was replaced with significant events in American history, such as Neil Armstrong’s planting of an American flag on the moon in 1969. Despite the official change many service members prefer the original version.
Roberson asked Rodriguez to perform the traditional version of the speech, the version containing the word “God”, at his retirement. Sources report that Lieutenant Colonel Michael Sovitsky, the squadron’s commanding officer, learned of the request and tried to stop it. When Roberson learned of Sovitsky’s interference in the ceremony he asked Rodriguez to to carry on with the planned speech in spite of Sovitsky’s protests. A recently released youtube video shows Roberson confirming that the did in fact invite Rodriguez to perform the speech at his retirement.
The United States Air Force claims that the traditional speech was never approved to be used at the ceremony. A spokesman for the Air Force stated that the revised version of the speech, that does not mention god, was approved, not the traditional version, and that Rodriguez was removed for “unplanned participation” in the event. They claim that Rodriguez was told not to recite the traditional speech several times but forged on ahead despite their warnings.
An Air Force Spokeswoman, Ann Stefanek, told Fox News that the traditional speech is still acceptable if requested by the retiring officer. The speech must receive approval before being used but is by no means completely banned. She said to Fox News:
“Since retirement ceremonies are personal in nature, the script preference for a flag folding ceremony is at the discretion of the individual being honored and represents the member’s views, not those of the Air Force.”
At this time there are several conflicting reports on whether or not the traditional speech was approved. First Liberty and the United States Air Force will continue to investigate the incident to determine whether or not removing Rodriguez from the ceremony was justified.
You can see the scene unfold from multiple angles in the video below.